The Jewish word for complaining, you might know, happens to be kvetch-ing.* But you don't have to be Jewish, obviously, to kvetch.

There's therapeutic value in it, and paid listeners spend the good part of their day in pursuit of the productive kvetch.
Meaning, if a patient can complain to a professional and get results, either feel better or resolve a problem, then it's probably good for that person to kvetch, and a therapist is doing a real service, just listening. It's what we do, among other things.

Even better is to orchestrate it so that the patient complains to someone in the family, builds an alliance there.

But forget about the therapeutic setting. Anybody with a friend or partner can complain just because it feels good. I suppose in certain religious circles this is frowned upon if it presents as gossip or involves casting of negative aspersions.

But let's not get all spiritual here. I'm pretty sure there are ways to complain to friends and lovers that are less gossipy or damaging than others. Talk to your local clergy-person if you have any religious questions about the right way to complain. Generally, you're allowed to do it in therapy to solve a problem, serve peace in relationships.

This comes up because a blogger wrote me to complain that he had blogged and let it all out, told a story that clearly felt good to tell. He disguised the people he wrote about as best he could, but worried that he had embarrassed someone.

He asked me, "Well, isn't the therapeutic value of getting it out of my system worth the slim possibility that I might have embarrassed someone, who, by the way, really injured me?"

Uh, no.

It's not going to be therapeutic in the long run if you're already feeling guilty about it. Maybe pull the post.

That's how kvetch-ing comes up in the blogging world. (I can just feel collective guilt festering all over the blogging universe right now as you read this.)

In the therapeutic world and the world of friendship, marriage or partnership, one person's proclivity to stuff it, as opposed to complain to, communicate with another, can be a problem.** Some people really do need to work things out, perhaps talk out loud, feel heard to feel better. But they won't. Or can't. People don't all have the words, or the clarity, vision fogged over with fears of exposure or conflict.

For some of us, complaining as children just wasn't allowed. Only the parents had the right to complain. So we learned not to. For other people, complaining feels horrible, like being exposed, raw, so out there, so vulnerable to criticism, rejection, and abandonment.

And then there are those of us who don't see that it will make any difference, complaining, don't think it will help, who can see kvetch-ing doing more harm than good, risking intimacy that will ultimately be lost, potentially create conflict, hurt feelings.

The emphasis on this blog, regarding communication, has always been

(a) You don't take away an umbrella until it stops raining.

In other words, if that's a person's psychological defense, not talking, you don't take it away. You don't make someone talk, you can't make someone talk, until that person feels safe in the relationship. Then it will be a natural thing, talking. Maybe. With a little work here.


(b) You want it to stop raining because intimacy, not distance, is valued in a relationship.

To me, one of the advantages of a committed relationship is that it lends itself to intimacy. Same bag of bones every night. You know each other's stressors, you know each other's outlets. You know if it's icecream or beer, and encourage watermelon. You encourage one another to share, because at the end of the day, only the two of you are living under that same roof, only the two of you can solve your problems. And if you have children, it is the two of you who will be accountable for their upbringing.

And the sharing feels good when you aren't punished for what you have said, rather have been rewarded with understanding. That feels very good, especially if it is a safe bet.

So we can talk all we want to our friends, complain all we want on the Internet, but if we have a significant other, the real juice is the emotional intimacy of complaining to him, to her. It's painful to listen to it, that's for sure, so often. We're tempted to feel we have to fix it, and sometimes we can, sometimes we can't. Problem solving, in relationships, is a different type of intimacy, requires different skills.

But listening is really the first order of business, the first course of intimacy, served up exclusively with a helping of words from someone else, words that fall, until further notice, on silence.

You notice, you really do, if someone isn't sharing with you, if a person is holding back, has things to say and isn't saying them. If you're sensitive, you can tell you're the only one who has been talking lately.

And for people like me, who don't like to let it all out, who would much rather read newspaper headlines aloud to bide the time, or tell Jewish jokes, or ask what's new in the community, the treatment is really less complicated than it looks. You tell people like us,
Just give me a little. Throw me a crumb. I won't ask questions, and I won't try to fix it. Just a couple of words, will do. Let me in. What's going on in there?
If you're lucky, and if you really refrain from trying to fix it or asking questions, it's likely you'll get some results.

Then maybe, if you're lucky, you'll feel you know this person. You can stop complaining about the lack of emotional intimacy.


* A kvetch is someone who complains all the time, but we use it as a verb, as in, lemme kvetch.

**This is where some of us have what is called interface, and have to talk to our therapists or push our finger nails into our palms to keep ourselves from saying something egregiously idiotic like, "ME TOO! I CAN'T COMPLAIN, EITHER!"


So we can talk all we want to our friends, complain all we want on the Internet, but if we have a significant other, the real juice is the emotional intimacy of complaining to him, to her.

An idea to contemplate... and yet another thing to appreciate about That Guy I Complain To.

The next stage in intimacy is, of course, laughing at each other's jokes, even when, well, it was a nice try anyway. (And I won't even mention the digestive effects we learn to share...)
Anonymous said…
This post reminds me of a book by Barbara Held entitled "Stop Smiling, Start Kvetching" about "creative kvetching"
Melissa said…
.** Maybe this person hasn't the words, or the clarity, vision fogged over with fears of exposure or conflict.

What a great post all round! And yes the above...or if the person has been told repeatedly that they are not feeling what they say they are...Do you remember ever being told "children should be seen and not heard" a mantra heard as kids...
BTW Therapydoc, would I be kvethching if I pointed out that the links to my blogs on your blog dont work? and I so want to be linked to you!!!!
therapydoc said…
Melissa, a good kvetch, productive. I'll get to it tomorrow, no promises, but will try.
Novalis said…
I'm new to your blog--lots of interesting stuff.

Just as there are people who lack the self-confidence to complain when they would be justified in doing so, aren't there just as many who thrive on constantly-voiced indignation (and who are more interested in "venting" than in doing anything that might deprive them of that wonderful indignant feeling)?

Maybe a good part of mental health is the art of constructive complaining.
Melissa said…
My husband has a great tee shirt (well, he HAD a great shirt, but I co-opted it): it has a dark picture of a snarling wolf on it, and the caption is "Thank you for not whining." I loved it so much I scanned it and posted the picture up at work.

That being said, I have to work at not complaining. I'm a lot better than I used to be.

I have a group of friends that I "spout off" to, mostly about colleagues or directors, but then we always finish with "thank you for allowing me to vent." It's good to have people you can shoot all your steam at so you don't eventually explode.
Molly said…
Whew, this is a great post for me. I think I'll have to re-read and take notes and send the man over for a visit too. Thank you!
Jack said…
It's not going to be therapeutic in the long run if you're already feeling guilty about it. Maybe pull the post.

So as long as we can kvetch guilt-free we're clear. ;)
Excellent post, as usual.

I have to say that, as I understand it, the permitted ways to complain to friends/relatives are frustratingly narrow... but I don't think that frustration in this is altogether bad. It just makes me think more about what I'm going to say.
Anonymous said…
Then there are those of us who feel the need to share too much and always complain. I wish I could bottle it up!
therapydoc said…
Anon, that's coming right up, how to complain, when to complain, etc.

It's not exactly nagging, but is a close relative.
Anonymous said…
What is the difference between "kvetching" complaining Venting and letting of steam?
(it seemes to me that venting is healthier then complaining)
therapydoc said…
Taggi, right. I'm working on a post, should be next, about venting, complaining, etc.

This is a BIG topic.
Anonymous said…
BUT in short
what is the difference?

and if we are talking posts
how aboutone explaining the connection between certain conditions and mental health
ie Diabetics, asthma , cronic fatigue syndrome and Fibromyalgia .
It is said that there is a connection Im just wondering what it is .
porcini66 said…
Sigh...I have such a long way to go. I used to think I didn't complain at all - I was in the group that learned at an early age that it will only get you trouble. Lately though, I am realizing that I complain in all sorts of ways...

- I complain by ignoring him.
- I complain by not supporting.
- I complain by distancing myself and MAINTAINING that distance.
- I complain by setting him up.
- I complain by refusing to complain, even when I know that it's in there.

The list goes on, but maybe you get the idea? I use words as my weapon. And I withhold them as a weapon as well. Nobody's gonna get inside a ME. No way, no how.

I want EMOTIONAL intimacy, I whine to my T. But at the first hint that I might get it - WHOOSH - like a scared rabbit, I run...

Lately, I've been finding the holes to the safety of the warren blocked off. And, despite the pain of that, the terror of that...I am grateful.

Great post, as always. Thanks for writing.
Jennifer Allen said…
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I brought 2 Pools from & they are awesome, not only I am doing my Therapy but they also are good for the whole family.
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